Friday, 28 August 2009

'Sir, you have agitated my heart.'

For the last nine years I’ve sat on the board of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the world’s largest literary festival. It has been one of the most enriching experiences of my working life, and every year as August comes to an end, I leave the magical, tented enclosure of Charlotte Square with my head full of ideas and my language sensors rinsed and refreshed.

Ten days ago at her farewell party, Catherine Lockerbie, our remarkable outgoing festival director, told this story. One afternoon she was hovering by the queue in the book-signing tent following a reading by the Chilean-American writer and human rights activist, Ariel Dorfman, who had been speaking movingly about freedom of speech and the horrors of the Pinochet regime. Reaching the front of the queue, a tall, distinguished-looking man stepped forward to shake the writer’s hand and said, in a North American accent, ‘Sir, you have agitated my heart.’

Catherine later learned that he was a banker who, following this encounter in Charlotte Square, had quit his job in the world of finance and gone to work for an aid agency.

That, of course, is the power of language well used, of the word thoughtfully chosen. It can, and should, agitate the heart. And to do so is not the sole prerogative of ‘creative’ writers. Agitating the heart is the essence of all effective human communication, and many of the world’s more successful organisations know it. It’s how they inspire loyalty and commitment among their customers and followers. It’s also where their lesser brethren fail so singularly, with language that wouldn’t agitate a millpond, let alone a human heart. And there’s a corollary: if an organisation shows so little conviction in the way it speaks, one can’t help but wonder how much it has in what it does.

The answer seems simple: before you can agitate other people’s hearts, you have to agitate your own.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Welcome to my blog

I've called it A Few Kind Words because that's the title of a talk I gave recently to a group of HR directors. Paradoxically, it's HR people who are often the unkindest of all in the way they use language at work. Even the description, Human Resources - to reheat an old chestnut - seems to me a kind of relegation. It puts people on a par with the paperclips. In fact it precisely dehumanises them. And it's the dehumanisation of people through language that I try and counter at every turn.

I do so by reminding people that the word kindness originally meant being kin, or kindred, or of the same kind. We are all humankind and we forget it at our peril when we communicate. So we must remember to be kinder to one another. We must remember that when we write something, the person who reads it will be another human being probably much like us. And if we use language that fails to make a human connection, that reduces people and ideas to abstractions, we might as well not have bothered. Language like that is worse than useless, yet the world of work is full of it.

I want this blog to be an antidote to the dead language of business. I want it to be about the colour and rhythm, the emotion and humour that we use quite naturally when we speak to one another. And I want it to be about all the marvellous possibilities that lively, engaging language could bring to our writing lives if only we'd let it. I hope you'll join me on the journey ...